“The ‘vaccines’ are simply the first steps in the genetic modification of the human race,” proclaimed the flyer, as its owner scrambled to pick up the sheaf he’d dropped on a Midtown sidewalk. “….Exactly as they genetically modify tomatoes….” it furthered.
The only correct thing about that statement from the NYS Liberty Coalition is the accurate use of single quotes within double quotation marks. Many beg to differ, however, and a few dozen believers — anti-vaxxers — milled around a crowded street corner in front of Madison Square Garden this past Sunday evening.
One protestor, regaling a small and rather disinterested group with a bullhorn, carried a hand-scrawled sign proclaiming, “Kurt Cobain would be ashamed.”
That supposition was directed at one of rock ’n’ roll’s busiest and by all accounts, nicest guys — former drummer for Cobain’s Nirvana, Dave Grohl. He and his band the Foo Fighters were backstage in anticipation of concurrently making history and thrilling New Yorkers as the first lineup to play the storied venue in well over a year. The concert was at full capacity with no distancing or mask requirements.
For the musical re-opening, MSG, according to its website, would only admit fully vaccinated concertgoers, and the Foos proved an ideal choice to lead the charge, welcoming back music lovers in one of the cities hardest-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. Nearly 33,000 people in New York City have died since March of 2020. Looking around the packed arena, it was sobering and devastating to consider that more than double the 15,000 people who were in the jubilant audience had died from the coronavirus in the last year and a half.
But at 6:30 p.m. doors opened, and Foos fans began — with anticipation and in an orderly fashion not always seen among New Yorkers — filing into the Garden. Shana Stein, 20, from Manhattan, was attending with her dad, 56, on Father’s Day. “I came here at 11 or 11:30 am this morning because I heard the merch was opening at noon,” she said excitedly.
Decked out in a T-shirt she’d purchased, Stein added. “I bought two posters, one for home, one for college. I’ve been listening to [Foo Fighters] a lot more, especially during the pandemic. I did get Medicine At Midnight on vinyl, though my favorite album is Wasting Light.” Her dad smiled.
The pair were not alone in exuding a sense of joy mixed with disbelief.
Grohl’s own demeanor, by turns funny, grateful, intense, and always energetic, resonated even to the nose-bleeds. Like Grohl, irrepressible drummer Taylor Hawkins is a multi-musical talent, the pair akin to your favorite Dazed and Confused characters, at once the coolest, goofiest, and most talented kids hanging at the Moon Tower.
The duo were the most visible of a supremely talented band rounded out by Pat Smear and Chris Shiflett on guitar, keyboardist Rami Jaffe and bassist Nate Mendel. Kicking off at 8:15 p.m. with 2003’s jangly, hopeful garage-pop gem “Times Like These,” the Foos turned in a nearly three-hour show that never flagged in vibrancy or material.
They’re a band without schtick or elaborate stage antics, but the Foos always strike the right chord. The Foos and the audience were on the same joyful and grateful page, the protesters outside missing a celebration of togetherness that brought tears to the eyes of more than one concertgoer when the band took the stage to thunderous, sustained cheers and applause.
After 26 years together, the Foos are a well-practiced, powerful unit, but their punk and classic rock upbringings and Grohl’s role as the everyman pied-piper of rock ’n’ roll can bring a smile to even the most jaded music lover.
Grohl’s charisma and the Foos’ nearly always spot-on songwriting — dynamic, and ranging from the punk-metal attack of new song “No Son of Mine” (elevated with three female backup singers) to the ’80s-influenced “Medicine at Midnight” title track — were unflagging.
The Foo Fighters’ unpretentious arena-rock is endlessly commanding. And it wasn’t just the circumstances of this special occasion. On social media, someone posited, “is Dave Grohl the only rock star?” Sometimes it seems that way. His myriad projects — brisket tacos, a documentary with his mom, anyone? — verge on overexposure. But it does seem he’s certainly doing more than his fair share of uniting across ages and stages with the Foos’ guileless, powerful rock ‘n’ roll and his own seemingly inexhaustible pool of good humor and even better sensibilities.
The Foo Fighters had likewise “opened” Los Angeles, albeit in a smaller venue — the 900-capacity room Canyon Club in the San Fernando Valley was the site of a June 15 concert. It was the first day Los Angeles venues were allowed to fully open sans masks or social distancing requirements. Fans slept overnight in the club’s parking lot, old-school style, to buy tickets, which were available only in person with proof of vaccination.
As in New York, attendees at the band’s L.A. hometown show were by turns disbelieving and overjoyed at the newfound freedom. That gig also had well-chronicled protesters, including child star Ricky Schroder. While Canyon Club attendees said vaccine-verification seemed airtight, that wasn’t necessarily the case at MSG. At least one entrance had a security guard who glanced at proffered vaccination cards yet waved away the picture ids that verify the vax card and ID match. There seemed to be no electronic method for verifying MSG attendees’ Excelsior passes that also confirmed vaccination status.
The Foo Fighters are not an inherently political band, in the way that Bad Brains or the Clash are. But their hand is sometimes forced. In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain used “My Hero.” The band voiced objections, and played an acoustic version at the 2012 Democratic convention. “My Hero,” which Grohl told the Guardian was “written as a celebration of the common man and his extraordinary potential,” now seems a fitting anthem for the world circa 2020–21, celebrating frontline workers and stories of resilience behind every door.
The only people in masks were MSG employees and the odd under-16-seeming kid. Strangers seated next to each other fist-bumped. Cell phones were held aloft the way lighters were back in the day. There was a warm ’n’ fuzzy intimacy despite the massiveness of MSG.
Grohl didn’t do much talking during the show, although on their latest album, the stunning Medicine For Midnight, “Waiting on a War” seems to elucidate the singer/guitarist’s general mindset. In the lyrical storyline, inspired by a question from his young daughter, he sings, “I’ve been waiting on a war since I was young / Since I was a little boy with a toy gun / Never really wanted to be number one /Just wanted to love everyone.”
That tune didn’t make an appearance during their 24-song-set at MSG, but a mix of songs, styles, covers, and hits ran the gamut. Special guest Dave Chapelle, joining the band to sing Radiohead’s “Creep,” made headlines, but was ultimately extraneous to the Foos own performance. Quirky asides/highlights included Hawkins front and center doing impressive vocals on Queen’s “Somebody to Love” with Grohl on drums, and the Foos’ fun foray into disco via their new moniker “Dee Gees,” and the live debut of the Brothers Gibb gem “You Should Be Dancing.”
It’s impossible to forget the nightmare of the last 15 or so months. And there are valid opinions and research published on whether Covid vaccines are riskier than purported, with the Delta variant causing many, even the fully vaccinated, to stay away from concerts and other large gatherings. Moving forward, MSG will stay on top of evolving protocols and expect to host both fully vaccinated and a mix of vaccinated/non-vaccinated shows, depending on the event/artists.
But for three freeing hours, those concerns weren’t front and center. At Eighth Avenue’s Molly Wee pub before the concert, Paul and Debbie, a married couple from Orange County, New York were at the bar, nothing short of elated. Were they wary about attending what in 2020 would have been termed a “superspreader” event?
“No way,” said Debbie. “We’re fully vaccinated, we’ve been psyched and ready for this.” It’s their third time seeing the Foo Fighters and the couple were fine with the vaccination requirements for entry. “It’s a public health concern, I don’t have a problem with it at all. Especially with New York being a hot spot,” Debbie said. “I have zero problem with it. If there’s a vaccine, protect your friends, protect your family.”
A Long Island woman who said her name was Karen disagreed. Outside MSG with a sign urging a rejection of injection mandates, she was in attendance “for the cause of medical freedom. Where there’s risk there must be choice,” she stated. “There must not be segregation on the basis of your medical decisions. It’s segregation and its discrimination.”
If vaccines weren’t required, would she have been inside, rocking out to “The Pretender” and “Everlong”? “Maybe, maybe not,” she replied, in a tone that seemed to indicate “no.” Asked about her goals at MSG, Karen said, “If someone has already done one shot, maybe they’ll think twice about getting the second, or when it’s time for their booster shot, they won’t take that.”
Karen didn’t belong to any organized protest group: “We’re all part of a bigger organization, it’s called the United States of America.”
There was a distinct lack of back-and-forth between protesters and concertgoers. But inside the venue, emotions ran high, and in two directions: the crowd’s energy was electric, positive, palpable, and unrelenting, much like the band’s own.
“Times Like These,” which opened the show, provided a fitting emotional and lyrical through-line for the evening, which proved ultimately as much of a landmark experience than a concert. As the Foos left the stage the satiated but energized audience filed out. In the cheek-by-jowl exit herd, spontaneous cheering filled the packed stairwells to the Midtown streets, as the lyrics to “Times Like These” took on a poignant joy: “It’s times like these you learn to live again. It’s times like these you give and give again. It’s times like these you learn to love again.” ❖